FIFA’s decision to lift the ban on international matches in some cities in Iraq has come as a welcome relief to the football loving people of the country which has suffered far too much over the past four decades due to wars and internal conflicts.
Following the decision, a friendly tournament will kick off in Erbil tomorrow involving Qatar, Syria and Iraq, hopefully marking an encouraging development for the game in the country which has a great history in the region as well as Asia as far as football is concerned.
“We are allowing international matches to be staged in the cities of Erbil, Basra and Karbala,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said after a meeting of the FIFA Council in Bogota last week.
These three cities had been allowed to organise friendlies in the past year provided the security situation was “stable”.
FIFA said it could not “yet” agree to a request from the Iraqi authorities to organise matches in the capital Baghdad, but Infantino promised that the city’s application would continue to be studied. The three cities selected are among the more secure in Iraq.
The Iran-Iraq war in the eighties and the first and second Gulf wars followed by the crisis involving ISIS had all contributed to large scale destruction and loss of lives. Unsurprisingly sport too was not spared, with football, which has mass following, becoming a major casualty.
During these testing times Iraqi football players lived a nomadic existence, playing their international matches on neutral venues, including Qatar, which has often been a base for them during important tournaments and played a key role in getting the ban lifted.
The Iraq Football Association (IFA) welcomed FIFA’s decision but vowed to “spare no effort for games to be played in stadiums in other provinces, including Baghdad”.
“This decision puts our sport back on the rails,” it said.
IFA chief Abdul Khaleq Masoud also praised the efforts made by Qatar Football Association (QFA) under the leadership of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani, to get the ban lifted.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who declared victory over ISIS in December, said the lifting of the FIFA ban was the “fruit of stability in terms of security and of the successes achieved by Iraq.”
For years, Iraq has been busily building stadiums and lobbying stars and the sport’s governing bodies for a return to the international fold.
The Asian football Confederation (AFC) has also welcomed the FIFA Council’s decision to lift the ban.
“This is a significant moment in shaping the future of football in Iraq,” the AFC said in a statement.
“The AFC, and the Asian football family as a whole, have supported this structured return of competitive football to Iraq.”
Hopefully, the ban on other cities will be also lifted in due course of time, paving the way for a new era for Iraqi sport.
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